Computer Downloads

Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Superhighway, by Clifford Stoll, New York: Doubleday, 247 pages, $22.00

The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, by Sven Birkerts, Boston: Faber and Faber, 231 pages, $22.95

War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality, by Mark Slouka, New York: Basic Books, 185 pages, $20.00

Subj: Computers and community
Date: 95-10-25
From: Gillespie@reason.com
To: skeptic@ubu.edu

Yes, by all means, let's keep talking about how technology in general and computers in particular affect our world todayand will influence our world tomorrow. But first, a pop quiz: Of the four following quotations, can you tell which one is written by the Unabomber?

1. "Few of society's major losses happen during sudden hurricanes or earthquakes....[T]he big time disasters creep up on us; by the time we notice something missing, it's already been wasted. Our cities weren't destroyed by atomic bombs or bubonic plague....The telephone eroded the art of writing letters. Television cut into neighborhood cinemas. MTV and superstars weakened amateur musicians and hometown bands. The car destroyed urban trolley systems; interstate highways devastated passenger rail service; and airliners wiped out passenger ships."

2. "The primary human relationsto space, time, nature, and to other peoplehave been subjected to a warping pressure that is something new under the sun. Those who argue that the very nature of history is changethat change is constantare missing the point. Our era has seen an escalation of the rate of change so drastic that all possibilities of evolutionary accommodation have been short-circuited....[W]e have stepped...out of an ancient and familiar solitude and into an enormous web of imponderable linkages. We have created the technology that not only enables us to change our basic nature, but that is making such change all but inevitable....None of this, I'm afraid, will seem very obvious to the citizen of the late twentieth century. If it did, there would be more outcry."

3. "Before 1900, daily life for the majority of individuals was agrarian, static, localin other words, not that different from what it had been for centuries. The twentieth century, however, altered the pace and pattern of daily life forever.
...What started us on the road to unreality? Though the catalog reads like a shopping list of many of the century's most dramatic trendsurbanization, consumerism, increasing mobility, loss of regionality, growing alienation from the landscape and so ontechnology...was the real force behind our journey toward abstraction....Let me state my case as directly as possible: [I]t is possible to see, in a number of technologies spawned by recent developments in the computer world, an attack on reality as human beings have always known it."

4. "There is good reason to believe that primitive man suffered from less stress and frustration and was better satisfied with his way of life than modern man is....Among the abnormal conditions present in modern industrial society are excessive density of population, isolation of man from nature, excessive rapidity of social change and the breakdown of natural small-scale communities such as the extended family, the village or the tribe....In the modern world it is human society that dominates nature rather than the other way around, and modern society changes very rapidly owing to technological change....[T]here is no stable framework."

Time's up. It's number four, but it isn't obvious, is it? The other passages are from, respec tively, Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway , Sven Birkerts's The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age , and Mark Slouka's War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality . All three books, in slightly different ways and with slightly different emphases, take on computers and related issues. But as you can tell from the lines quoted above, their contempt for computers is part of a larger critique of Technology writ large. Like the Unabomber, Stoll, Birkerts, and Slouka characterize technologya term that refers to everything from stone axes to particle acceleratorsas disruptive and discombobulating, never enabling or enriching.

For them, it's as if technology is flinging humanity through time and space at such a step that the g-force is making our skin pull away from our eyes and our lips flap away from our gums; we're being crushed by such dizzying speed. Rub your eyes and poof! Horses are out, autos are in. Blink again: Books are extinct, hypertext is cock of the spacewalk. As the Unabomber would put it, there is no "stable framework," no way to make sense of what man hath wrought, no way to evaluate change before it's too late.

Such sentiments appeal to a very basic conservative part of human nature: Stick with what you know, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, anything new is worth waiting for. Who can't relate to Miniver Cheevy who "loved the days of old," or the Wild West outlaw who, after 30 years in jail, is released into a strange new 20th-century world of moving pictures and flying machines?

But such notions grossly misrepresent both the pace and nature of technological change. Things change over time and unevenly: I know plenty of people who only write letters longhand, others who only type on typewriters, others who only use e-mail, and still others who use a combination of all three media. Technology is not a self-starting perpetual motion machine that runs on human bodies. The inventions that stickespecially in a market order based on voluntary exchange and associationare the ones that serve people's needs and allow them to realize their desires.

Slouka, a lecturer in literature and culture at the University of California at San Diego, is correct to suggest that, for many people throughout most of history, life was static and predictable. That is to say, they could expect a life of disease, discomfort, and deprivation. (At least it was short.) No doubt about it, a bird in the hand is indeed worth two in the bushbut what do you do when you need five birds, 10 birds, 15 birds to feed your family?

That was, no doubt, the question all four of my grandparents pondered as they crossed the Atlantic on steamships during the 1910s. All were born before the Wright Brothers got off the ground at Kitty Hawk and three of four watched a man land on the moon because their lives had been "artificially" extended by surgery, drugs, and medical devicesnot
to mention the fertilizers, farming techniques, and transportation technology that helped put food on the table.

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